[Said Mr. Collins:] “…I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies. I have more than once observed to Lady Catherine that her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her. — These are the kind of little things which please her ladyship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself peculiarly bound to pay.”
“You judge very properly,” said Mr. Bennet, “and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”
“They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.”
–Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 14
Jane got it right, as usual: compliments have amazing power.
For example, this year, a Facebook comment of “Hottt” (I hope I spelled that correctly) kicked off the derailment of Anthony Weiner’s political career. Of course, most compliments have much smaller impacts. “Honey, I love the way you make coffee” will, if all goes well, simply lead to someone making coffee for you, and no one will have to resign any political offices.
Are compliments always used to manipulate? In the WIP I just finished up, they are at first. The heroine is a social leader who uses compliments like coin, banking up goodwill among her peers for the day it might be needed. Her pragmatic view of social interactions is part of what intrigues the hero, who is decidedly not in touch with his finer feelings (this is the guy my agent called a “mad scientist”). Eventually, of course, they both grow and change. The heroine learns to compliment–and, gasp, even love–without expecting reciprocity.
Maybe (ok, probably) this idea of compliments-as-commerce reflects my own viewpoint. Everyday compliments–”I like your shirt!”–don’t really touch my heart. If you’re familiar with the Five Love Languages, word of affirmation are pretty low on my list, along with receiving gifts (lucky for Mr. R–though unluckily for him, acts of service is sky-high. So, yeah: mow the lawn!). The compliments that DO mean something to me are not written out and calculated, like Mr. Collins’s; nor are they easy to give. They’re big. I even wrote them down once in a semi-serious manner.
That’s not to say I give phony compliments. That’s not to say I don’t mean it when I say I like your shirt. I do. It’s a lovely color on you.
I know perfectly well that in some situations, you’re likely to freak people out by telling them that they’re lovely human beings. Maybe it’s not true. Maybe it IS true but they feel shy about it. Maybe they just got a new shirt and they want validation.
What my heroine believes–and I do too–is that compliments should be suited to the person and the occasion. The purpose of a compliment is to show another person that you think well of him or her in some small, medium, large, or venti way. I think Jane Austen agreed with this too, since she made Mr. Collins a figure of ridicule by having him script out all-occasion compliments ahead of time. He sought to elevate himself, not the object of his praise.
Is this kind of heavy for a Monday morning? Sure, but I really DO like your shirt. And if you feel like making me coffee, I won’t mind.
What compliment means the most to you? Or if you know the Five Love Languages, which one do you speak?